By Kiana Borjian
“Five is a good number. Five pillars. Five prayers. Five players on a basketball team.” So says Marwand, the protagonist of Jamil Jan Kochai’s 99 Nights In Logar (4). Marwand is visiting family in Afghanistan from the United States, reconnecting with cousins who are much more interested in soccer than basketball, a strange American sport where the whole team never plays at once. Even the family dog, Budabash, can sense Marwand’s dislocation and bites off the tip of his index finger to inaugurate Marwand’s homecoming. But when the dog runs away, Marwand is eager and insistent to find and bring Budabash back. Thus begins an adventure: a band of boys in search of a dog, sweeping through the villages and mountains of Afghanistan at a time when the war is at a low frequency, a familiar background noise of daily life.
In many ways, the novel is a werewolf story. For Marwand, Budabash is more of a demon than a dog. Though his twelve year old imagination may be spurred by the bootleg DVDs like An American Werewolf in London he watches with his cousins, Budabash certainly has some supernatural tendencies. The dog disappears from photographs – classic demonic behavior. But as we learn more about the history of Marwand and Budabash’s relationship, it becomes clear that Marwand, too, has a streak of evil. At age six, Marwand tortured Budabash profusely, and “the dog just suffered it” (78). His simultaneous villainizing and villaining toward the dog is not unlike the United States’s relationship to Afghanistan. What are the mythologies and stories we create and tell ourselves when we go to war? What stories get lost or eroded in the process?
The penultimate chapter is written in Pashto (or Farsi?). My confusion and readers’ confusion at large seems to be exactly the point, powerfully protecting a part of the story so that it is accessible only to those who know, are tied to, or have learned the language. Kochai’s novel not only explores what American imperialism looks like, but directly resists American narrative imperialism in which English and US centric narratives are the only ones disseminated and understood. Even though I have a first grade reading level in Farsi, I couldn’t muster the energy to attempt to translate, and found myself in a similar predicament to Marwand – patchworking languages to communicate with his family, discomfort with the tongue of his homeland. Maintaining and persevering language, culture, and stories is an active process in the diaspora, a truth explored in 99 Nights in Logar and embodied the experience of reading itself.
In this reinvigoration of a coming of age story and werewolf saga, stories lost and drowned by the United States imaginary are brought back up to the surface. Readers witness Marwand learn and remember, be clueless and be curious, and create and tell his own stories. Just as Budabash’s strong and scarred body is a stunning reminder and testament to the simultaneity of beauty and trauma, Kochai’s novel resists a neat narrative, weaving humor, history, pain, and growth to invite readers to experience Logar alongside Marwand and his family.